Tag Archives: Avant-garde

CAPSULE: GERRY (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Gus Van Sant

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Two young men become lost in a desert, and wander aimlessly in search of a way out.

Still from Gerry (2002)

COMMENTS: The plot synopsis above may seem unhelpfully brief, but there’s the very real possibility that I’ve actually said too much. Describing Gerry is an almost futile task, because very little actually happens, and that’s very much the point. Even before they get lost, the two men motoring down the highway aren’t really doing anything. Their sojourn into the desert is a vague trek to see “the thing,” a goal they dispense with pretty early on. They don’t even speak for the first eight minutes of the film until Damon reminds Affleck to stick to the path, as blunt a piece of foreshadowing as one can imagine.

Gerry is largely a sensory experience. Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides capture a some truly spectacular, desolate vistas (a mélange of Death Valley and Argentina), against which Affleck and Damon seem puny and immaterial. Meanwhile, the soundscape of designer Leslie Shatz is cranked up to the maximum, with every trudge and scrape slamming into the red. It’s not just that these two men are lost and doomed. It’s that we’re right there with them.

For a story about people walking blithely into harm’s way, Gerry is unexpectedly entertaining. Affleck and Damon improvised much of their dialogue and they have a casual repartee, best exemplified by a scene where Affleck manages to get stuck atop an enormous boulder and the pair has to figure out a way to get him down. (Affleck also nails the film’s most brutal slice of gallows humor: “How do you think the hike’s going so far?”) They exude a surprising amount of personality for as little as they say, and as little as we know about them. Even their names are a mystery; they might both be called Gerry, but they also use the word as shorthand for making a dumb mistake, so the very title of the film could just be a way of busting their chops.

Van Sant marries this non-story with potent visuals that would be comically overwrought if they didn’t serve the film so well. A perfectly framed closeup of the men slogging through the desert almost resembles a horse race, until you realize each ear-splitting crunch in the dirt is leading them ever closer to nowhere at all. A long, slow dolly around Affleck, capturing his utter dejection is paired with a similar dolly looking outward, taking in the stunning scenery that is doing him in.

Gerry kicks off a sort of unofficial Gus Van Sant trilogy about young death. This film’s death-by-misfortune is followed by Last Days (suicide) and Elephant (murder). Uniting the three films is a sense that that last day of life is not momentous or weighted with significance. The days are just days. And there is beauty and terror in them, just the same.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you can imagine Dude, Where’s My Car? rewritten by Samuel Beckett, you have some idea of what this intriguing, ferociously austere, but subtly and unlocatably humorous picture feels like… Gerry requires a leap of faith and an investment of attention: but with its fascination and weird exhilaration it handsomely repays both.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motkya, who called it “ a masterpiece of minimalism” and argued “[t]his movie deserves to be in the List, if only for its uncompromising refusal to be a traditional cinematic experience.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)   

CAPSULE: THE IDIOTS (1998)

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Idioterne; AKA Dogma2: The Idiots

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bodil Jørgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing

PLOT: A Danish commune finds meaning and community by acting like “idiots” (i.e., pretending to be mentally disabled), especially in public).

Still from The Idiots (1998)

COMMENTS: As Karen dines alone at a restaurant, she observes a caretaker attempting to feed two adult males who keep wandering over to disturb the other diners, insistently saying “hi” and grabbing the napkins off the table. Unperturbed when Stoffer, one of these “idiots,” grabs her hand, she follows the group outside, and even joins them in the taxicab when Stoffer refuses to release his grip. She is intrigued to discover the performance was all a sham, and Stoffer is actually the intelligent leader of a small, cult-like commune who stage these performances in restaurants, factory tours, swimming pools, office board meetings, and the like.

Far from being offended, Karen is intrigued enough to join the group. The rest of the movie then follows their antics as individual members seek to unleash their “inner idiot” by “spazzing,” mostly in public, but also among themselves. Although the movie establishes dynamics between the characters, in the end, it’s a bit like watching an unscripted, non-comedic version of Jackass—or, in its grosser moments, like scaled-back versions of the Vienna Actionists’ scat orgy in Sweet Movie. Possible motivations for this behavior are hinted at—shocking the bourgeois, playing a game, returning to a state of innocence, mocking the handicapped, championing abnormality, participating in a ritualistic group therapy—but ultimately, the idiots’ reasons for their idiocy remain as inscrutably individual as their activities are indisputably idiotic.

The movie is only watchable in a geek-show sort of way—up until a brilliantly executed final spazz that suddenly supplies a retroactive emotional heft to the entire exercise. That climax exists in an ambiguous space somewhere between catharsis and comeuppance, and raises the stakes of the questions that have been festering in our minds about these idiots. Is elective idiocy an insincere affectation, an emotional affliction, or a form of transcendence? Like their director, the idiots may be addicted to making people uncomfortable, but there is also a genuine sadness at the core of the exercise—at least, for some of the participants.

The Idiots is a Dogma 95 film; that is to say, it (aspirationally) follows the rules laid out in the Dogme 95 manifesto intended to revitalize cinema by de-emphasizing production values and returning to the roots of drama. Dogma films were intended to have no non-diegetic music (a rule von Trier violates in the very first scene), to be shot entirely on location, to use only natural light and handheld cameras, etc.: essentially, every story was to be filmed as if it was being captured by a television news crew. Despite co-founding the short-lived movement with Thomas Vinterberg, The Idiots was von Trier’s only Dogma movie. His next film, Dancer in the Dark, was a magical realist musical that was almost as far away from the Dogma credo as imaginable, while still remaining in the limits of the art-house film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This director, in other words, is replaying the guerrilla-theater spirit of the ’60s, but with the cleansing psychodramatic mysticism of a digital-age Ingmar Bergman.”–Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Wormhead. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: USED AND BORROWED TIME (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Sophia Romma

FEATURING: Cam Kornman, Emily Seibert, Clas Duncan, Alice Bahlke, Grant Morenz, Gavin Roher, Maureen O’Connor

PLOT: A blind old Jewish woman eats a mystic pie served up by a racist at an Alabama fair and goes back in time to relive her experiences in an interracial romance during the civil rights struggle.

Still from Used and Borrowed Time (2020)

COMMENTS: According to the protagonist’s own words, time is not the commodity that’s been used and borrowed in Used and Borrowed Time. That conundrum is far from the strangest thing in this avant-garde[efn_note]It was literally made under the auspices of a New York theatrical troupe called “the Garden of the Avant-Garde.”[/efn_note]  production, though. The time-travel plot alone is a little bit strange, since the core story about a doomed interracial love affair in the Deep South in the early Sixties would normally be treated with “respectful” realism. It’s even odder, though, that the impetus for the journey is supplied via psychedelic pies sold at an Alabama fair by rabid anti-Semites who drawl their way though a series of MAGA taking points that would make Richard Spencer complain “geez, these guys sound a little bit racist.” Add to the mix the fact that the dialogue inconsistently adopts a loose, rap-inspired rhyme scheme (“You are so uptight. And you look afright. How’s a lost soul like you supposed to make it home alright?”), is decorated with cheap out-of-the-box CGI effects, and is enacted with the passion and talent of a community theater troupe, and you have an oddity ready made for raising eyebrows. And, it’s nearly four hours long! (Thankfully, it’s split into two parts on Amazon Prime).

Now, I can’t say that Used and Borrowed Time is actually worth your time, all the time. The project desperately needed a good editor to salvage a halfway decent, very weird 90-minute feature out of this well-intentioned but epically overlong jumble of platitudes. There are a few good things to highlight: the musical interludes from a soulful R&B chanteuse, for example. The effects occasionally work, like when a pair of glowing red cats eyes fade in and out like glowing embers from a wire crate in the background as the young couple prepare to make surreptitious love in a barn. And there are a lot of funny moments and bits of dialogue, some of which may be intentional. When the old lady steals a piece of apple pie which makes her all green and sparkly and throws her into a void, she laments “I should never have indulged in that voodoo pie bliss.” When a romantic liaison is interrupted by the withered old green-glowing time traveler replacing Steadroy’s nubile sweetheart in his arms, his reaction is a deadpan, “What’s going on? I was just about to shag Eva in the shed!” It takes a family of hicks five minutes to recite grace on Christmas Eve dinner, because they keep interrupting the prayer with digressions, blasphemies, and threats to murder each other. And you have to give some bonus points to any script that attempts to rhyme “cracker” with “pecker.”

Having said that, the negatives here far outweigh the positives; and if the negatives weren’t frequently softened by being so darn strange, the movie would be unwatchable. Apart from the distracting cheapness of the production (amateurish acting, threadbare sets, a Halloween wig used as a major costuming choice), Used and Borrowed Time is far too infatuated with it’s own nobility and cleverness. More devastatingly, it’s far too long. The family of white villains is composed of a timid young adult, a bitter and vindictive matron, a weak-willed sister who was educated in righteousness when she married a senator from above the Mason-Dixon line, along with one interesting character, a heretical gay uncle who’s just as hateful and bigoted as the others, but whose constant perverse and sacrilegious utterances everyone accepts with a shrug. Their endless dialogues go over and over the same territory time and time again, establishing that they are, indeed, irredeemable racists and all-around awful specimens of humanity. The young lovers’ attempts to get it on are repetitively interrupted by the sparkly time-traveling woman (whose charming Southern accent, by the way, has changed over entirely to a grating New York Jewish one over the decades). When the couple are captured by the redneck family, they are, once again, locked up and threatened in various ways over and over, and despite the time-traveler constantly undoing the ropes that bind them, they always get caught again, sometimes without explanation. Quite simply, the script keeps repeating itself like its caught in a time loop, until the drama of the situation yields to cries from the audience to “get on with it!”

It’s difficult to criticize a film whose heart—both ethically and aesthetically—is generally in the right place (although residents of Alabama might disagree), but the result here leaves much to be desired. Used and Borrowed Time will find probably draw most of its audience from a woke anti-racism crowd looking to feel smart and self-congratulatory while looking down their noses at some admittedly despicable racist strawmen. But I think it’s more of a find for for those of us who seek out the oddest ideas committed to celluloid—whether they be executed well or badly.

Used and Borrowed Time is currently streaming free for Amazon Prime members.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film manages to beautifully deliver an important message while remaining artistic and unique.”–Adva Reichman, Cult Critic (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HOLY TRINITY (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Molly Hewitt

FEATURING: Molly Hewitt, Theo Germain

PLOT: A dominatrix finds she’s able to speak to the dead after huffing cans of new age air freshener, but her newfound viral celebrity threatens her relationship with her submissive partner.

Still from Holy Trinity (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The plot involves a dominatrix speaking to the dead after huffing air freshener, so they would really have to drop the ball for this not to catch our attention. Spoiler alert: they don’t drop the ball; in fact, the movie comes awfully close to earning the coveted “” rating.

COMMENTS: The character in the Marge-Simpson-sized fishnet hat stuffed with pink balloons wearing two-inch lashes with lime-green eye shadow only gets a couple of lines. She is not a sideshow freak in Holy Trinity‘s strange world, but just a regular background character[efn_note]She is, in reality, the Imp Queen, a Chicago-based trans woman drag performance artist of some notoriety.[/efn_note], like the pattycake-playing human kitty cat or the big bearded medium in lavender robes with flowers in their hair.

By contrast, Trinity, our friendly orange-haired dominatrix protagonist, and her sweet submissive slave, the shaven-headed Baby, are almost “straight” characters. Their relationship is tender, despite the fact that Trinity keeps Baby tied on a leash about ninety percent of the time. They exist in a flipped fantasy world where alternative culture and sexuality is the norm, and normality is nowhere to be found. The giant Glamhag corporation supplies all this world’s needs, from diet sodas to Orixaoco spiritual air freshener. Every living room looks like it was conceived and designed by a drag queen art major while tripping on ecstasy. TV sets are draped in decorative foam. Everyone spends two hours a day putting on makeup and selecting their wardrobe just to go to the corner grocery store. The bananas aesthetic reaches its height at Sunday “church” service, where the local weirdos all gather for a weekly bacchanalia that’s a cross between a Halloween pride parade and a makeshift disco set up at a school cafeteria held on “come-as-a-sexy-nun” night.

Besides all that, there’s visions of the afterworld, a big butch angel, discussion of the ethical implications of psychic powers on the consensuality of bondage and discipline sessions, and shots at the hypocrisy of religion (typified by a priest who’s a big Madonna fan). Also, although everyone in the movie speaks like an American (with the exception of one character who speaks subtitled Portuguese), they pay for everything with Euros. That currency choice is one of the least strange features of Holy Trinity‘s universe, but it strikes me as a good reminder of how far the movie goes to ensure that absolutely everything is off-center.

is the obvious influence here, but instead of the witty misanthropy and satirical ugliness of his early years, or the campy nostalgia of his later works, the movie sets a sunny, optimistic tone of triumphant intoxication and celebration of eccentricity. Holy Trinity‘s universe is a sex-positive, kink-positive, freak-accepting psychic utopia.

Holy Trinity makes its debut at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ  Film Festival tomorrow, July 19. I have no doubt it’s an appropriate and welcoming venue. But while there are plenty of obviously gay and lesbian characters in the film, the central relationship explored here is heterosexual (although ultra-kinky). Holy Trinity is “queer” in the original sense of the word, but I’d hate to see it pigeonholed as an LBGTQ special interest film: like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or the works of John Waters, it speaks to all free spirits and outsiders, even the straightest among us. If, like me, you’re the kind of person who relishes the opportunity to tell casual acquaintances “I saw this movie about a paint-huffing dominatrix who talks to the dead the other night,” you’ll want to prioritize this one.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DECASIA (2002)

Also see Alfred Eaker’s take on Decasia

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Uncredited documentary subjects

PLOT: Scored to a disturbing minimalist composition, a parade of early 20th century images on decayed and damaged film stock march across the screen, forming hypnotic abstract landscapes.

Still from Decasia (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We avoided the hypnotic experimental documentary subgenre on our first pass through the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made, because this peculiar corner of art films normally wed an unusual (weird) form to commonplace (not-weird) subject matter. When it comes to honoring movies as Apocrypha, however, it’s harder to argue that formally groundbreaking movies like Koyaanisqatsi—and this one—can be excluded from being considered among the strangest things the mind of man has come up with.

COMMENTS: A boxer punches an amoeba. A man in a fez prays at a mummy’s tomb, in negative image. A lone airplane flies through the sky, almost perfectly centered in a wavering iris puncturing the darkness. Nuns and schoolchildren strobe in and out of existence. The screen is filled with nothing more than a billowing cloud. Abstract patterns whir by, almost looking as if they were drawn by hand—a butterfly here, a flower petal there—and fade away to reveal a shy geisha.

Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison scoured over what must have been thousands of hours of partially decayed stock footage to select the most wondrous and poetic images time accidentally created. A complete taxonomy of film damage is on display here. Images sometimes decay from the center outward, sometimes from the edges inward. Frequently, the film is warped so that abstract cracked lines obscure the underlying picture, but often the effects are more surprising. Individual stills might look like gibberish, but because each frame of film holds a slightly different piece of information about the whole, when the series is run through a projector, ghostly figures emerge. The visuals often resemble ‘s splatter-paint-on-the-celluloid experiments, except that the effects here have been created entirely by the natural degradation of cellulose.

Decasia‘s reliance on a minimalist classical music score obviously recalls ‘s time-lapse documentaries. But whereas Philip Glass’ work on the “Qatsi trilogy” of films was smooth and dreamy, Michael Gordon’s composition is dissonant and confrontational. Low strings create a ceaseless rhythm, while violins fall through microtonal scales in a long, slow decay. Horns enter the mix like distant alarms. Gordon specified that certain instruments in the Basel Sinfonetta be deliberately out of tune. In keeping with the theme of recycling, he used discarded car brake drums he found in a junkyard as an instrument, along with detuned pianos. His intent, he said, was to “make the orchestra sound like it was covered in cobwebs, with instruments that had been sitting for a hundred years, creaky and warped and deteriorated” The uncomfortable but still beautiful sounds divert our thoughts to the darker implications of the pictures dancing and disintegrating before our eyes. The music and the images exist in such a perfect, unconscious  symbiosis that it’s meaningless to wonder which came first.

Decasia is an authentically Surrealist documentary. The startling images have all been generated via a random process, with the interpretation up to the individual viewer. Everyone in these film clips is long dead, and soon the damaged images themselves will fade away to nothing. And yet, the experience is marvelous, not depressing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The unexpected thing is that its dying, in this shower of black-and-white psychedelia, is quite beautiful.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tadd.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)